What do a fearsome dragon, a brave bugler and Oskar Schindler all have in common? Kraków.

Nestled on the Vistula River, Krakóserved as Poland’s capital for five centuries and is the country’s leading tourist attraction today. It is home to Poland’s largest castle, Wawel Royal Castle, one of the very first UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated in 1978. Coincidentally, this was the same year the city’s archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II, making him the first-ever Slavic pope 

But the city’s history reaches far past these noteworthy facts and the Second World War it survived. What is it, then, that is so fascinating about Kraków? In short: everything. 

A Fire-Breathing Dragon and the Cobbler Who Became King 

Ever wonder where Kraków got its name? Some attribute it to a cobbler named Krak, who, in a feat of bravery, tried his hand at slaying a beast who tortured the city. You see, legend has it that a ravenous dragon once lived beneath the city’s castle. When his demands for cattle were not met, the dragon wreaked havoc and feasted upon the townspeople instead.  

In his desperate attempts to save lives, the king of the castle decreed that whoever defeated the dragon could marry his daughter, Princess Wanda, and take over his royal throne. Many stepped up to the plate, but it was the lowly shoemaker Krak who ultimately took down the reptilian terrorist with a sheepskin he’d stuffed with hay and sulfur as a sacrificial meal. The dragon, as expected, satiated his appetite with the faux sheep but was quickly overcome by an unquenchable thirst. He flew to the Vistula River where he drank and drank until his body could take no more – and he exploded into dust.  

The elated king kept true to his word, offering his blessing for Krak to marry the princess. The newly anointed King Krak built a castle atop the dragon’s lair and named the city in his honor. Now, others believe the cobbler’s name was Skuba, so whether or not you believe this story is up to you. However, you can visit the 20-foot-tall Wawel Dragon Statue who goes by the name of Smok Wawelski, near the river, which, by the way, breathes real fire. You can also find the dragon’s likeness in many a souvenir shop, a testament to this historic legend.  

St. Mary's Trumpet Call: An Hourly Tradition

From the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone to the whooshing spray of fountains scattered throughout the city, Kraków is filled with auditory pleasures, but none is more distinctive than St. Mary’s Trumpet Call.  

Originally constructed in the 13th century and rebuilt in the 14th-century in the Gothic style, St. Mary’s Church itself is the towering landmark of Old Town Square, but do not let its understated brick façade deceive you. Inside is a flamboyant display of frescoes and ornate decorations that lead the eye to the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world, intricately carved from wood.  

However, you’ll want to be outside for the highlight of St. Mary’s, where, every hour on the hour within the tower, a trumpeter plays the Hejnal Mariacki, a five-note hymn-turned-anthem of the city, commemorating an event that occurred nearly 900 years ago. It is said that when Kraków came under siege in 1241, a Polish soldier saw a cloud of dust in the distance. Recognizing that it was enemy Tatar troops, he took to the church tower and played the song to warn inhabitants of the impending attack. While the citizens were able to close the gates to the city and were saved, tragedy struck when an arrow pierced the sentry’s throat in the middle of playing the melody. 

Today, St. Mary’s bugler is an icon of the city. The tune, just as the soldier’s life, is abruptly cut short, and is played in each cardinal direction – a not-to-be-missed and moving spectacle that brings history to life through music to your ears. 

Brave Mr. Schindler 

Of course, those familiar with the darker pages of Kraków’s past will remember it well for its connection to the tragic events of the Holocaust during World War II. But push past the darkness and there you’ll find the city’s light in Oskar Schindler. The somewhat controversial hero of the Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, the businessman was a member of the Nazi Party who clearly disagreed with much of their politics. 

Schindler operated three factories in Kraków. Among them was the Emalia factory where he employed Jewish workers. In addition to improving these workers’ living conditions and saving them from much harsher treatment, the factory owner pulled a fast one on his Nazi counterparts. He produced a work order for a new munitions “factory” where he would employ 1,200 Jewish prisoners, while in reality, he was transporting and rescuing these souls who would have otherwise been deported to Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of Europe’s labor and death camps 

Beginning in 2023, you can visit Kraków’s Jewish Quarter and see Schindler’s famed factory during our optional land package as part of your Celebration of Classical Music: The Danube and Majestic Capitals of the Danube  journeys. You will also experience a deeply moving visit to Auschwitz. The main gate, barbed wire fences, buildings and barracks look much the same today as they did during the Holocaust, when 1.1 million lives were taken within the camp. It was liberated from January 17-21, 1945, saving 58,000 from further horrors. Though not for the feint of heart, this once-in-a-lifetime excursion will honor the memory of those who perished and promises to be one you won’t soon forget. 

Why Reserve This Land Package

Add a bonus country to your journey: Poland! Make the most of your international airfare and indulge your wanderlust by spending more time in Europe and exploring this fascinating city. Whether connecting with your Polish or Jewish heritage, or simply interested in the great legends of this incredible place, you will be inspired by your experiences during this 3-night land package, which includes a moving visit to Auschwitz.

What’s Included in Your Optional Land Package

  • 3 nights in Krakow at a 4- or 5-star hotel conveniently located near the major sites
  • Daily breakfast at the hotel
  • Convenient transfers between your hotel and ship
  • Guided tours
  • The services of one of our wonderful Cruise Managers – unique in the industry

Extend your journey courtesy of AmaWaterways!

Receive a complimentary 2-, 3- or 4-night Land Package when you reserve select 2024 and 2025 Europe river cruises. Click here for offer details or contact your preferred travel advisor. Offer available through June 30, 2024. 

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